Masters of Golf: Ralph Guldahl


—Autograph March 2009

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Tricks of the Trade: Prep Glossy Items for Signing


Featured in Autograph January 2010

High gloss cover shows bubbling in Jessica Burciaga's signature

Two years ago, Tony Gwynn had just been voted into the MLB Hall of Fame Class of 2007, and Sports Illustrated generated a commemorative edition on his behalf. I bought a copy and headed for Gwynn’s scheduled public appearance nearby. I was thrilled at the thought of having the magazine signed by one of my all-time favorite baseball heroes.

Gwynn gladly signed with the nicely charged blue Sharpie marker I handed him and even added his new “HOF 2007” inscription. He handed the magazine back and I almost fainted. The signature bubbled up on the glossy cover, rendering it virtually unrecognizable!

A friend of mine winced when he saw it. “Should have rubbed the magazine down beforehand,” he said. I couldn’t help thinking, “Gee, thanks! That advice would have been helpful a few minutes ago.” I was a seasoned collector and I’d just made a rookie mistake.

There are many collectibles that can be signed without preparation, but some items must have some of the gloss removed so that the ink can be absorbed and not bubble-up like it did in my Gwynn disaster. Here’s to the Rookies of Class 2010: get an eraser and some baby powder and resolve to fill the New Year with flawless autographs.

Sports Cards

Sports cards are a favorite for autograph hounds, but many brands of the modern cards are produced with a heavy glossy luster. Sure these cards tend to be sturdier, but the coating can be a serious obstacle for autographs.

I like to remove some of the gloss by rubbing the card down with a white eraser. You can use your thumb to rub the card down, but it won’t be as effective. Generic white erasers work well and I also like the Pentel Clie Eraser Series.

Baby powder is another secret. On Autograph Magazine Live! Tim Henderson posted: “I use baby powder and spread it over the item then wipe it off…” I tried Tim’s suggestion, sprinkling a little bit of powder on a glossy sports card and then rubbing it down gently with my thumb, followed with a soft cloth to wipe off the powder. I tested it with a Sharpie and it worked like a charm.


Some magazine such as Playboy, Cosmopolitan and some issues of Sports Illustrated have high gloss covers, and you’ll get bubbling or streaking 95 percent of the time if you don’t prep them. Other magazines, such as Time, Newsweek or Beckett, are fine without preparation.

If you’re not sure whether a magazine needs prepping, take the white eraser to a small, inconspicuous section of the cover and rub it gently. If some of the ink comes off, then the magazine doesn’t require any additional preparation.

For high gloss covers rub the entire surface with a white eraser, using a soft cloth to remove eraser remnants. Then, do it again. The gloss reduces friction for the eraser. When the gloss is heavy, you won’t see many eraser fragments. As the gloss wears down, more friction creates more eraser remnants. Two or three repetitions should do the trick. Obviously, stop erasing when you can see any impact on the underlying ink.

Other Items

I’ve seem some collectors rub down plastic helmets and mini-helmets with erasers, but I haven’t noticed any difference in how the ink adheres to the surface. I just wipe plastic surfaces with a soft cloth to remove any streaks or fingerprints before signing. I also haven’t noticed any difference in prepping blonde baseball bats with a glossy lacquer finish, and I’d worry that some of the eraser remnants could get lodged in the grain, compromising the integrity of the autograph over time.

My final tip? You can never be sure that your athlete or celebrity will sign on the exact spot you’ve prepped. Jessica Burciaga signed her cover for me, but the bottom line slid into glossy territory with bubbles and streaks.

Bottom line: Add a box of white erasers to your autograph collecting arsenal.

Come to Autograph Magazine Live! Tricks of the Trade forum and tell me your tips for getting baseballs signed.

Paper, Pen & Ink

By Steven Raab

Autograph May 2009

Authentication of historical autographs doesn’t always begin with an analysis of the signature. Often, you can spot a suspicious item simply by knowing what paper sizes were in vogue during the period in which the author was writing, or through understanding what pen would have been in their hand. In our book, In the Presence of History, we detail 10 steps for authenticating historical autographs. The fourth step, in which we explain what you should be looking for in terms of types of paper, water marks, pens and inks, is excerpted below for Autograph readers.

Extracted from In the Presence of History

Paper Sizes & Manufacture

A Letter from Washington approving his plan for an attack on the British, written on the common size paper of the Revolutionary era

The manufacture, physical makeup and sizes of paper have differed over the years. Letters of Washington, Franklin and others of their generation were almost never written on paper smaller than about 8×10 inches. Often the paper was larger, more like 9×12 or 14. And sometimes that was its size when folded so that there were four sides total, meaning the sheet unfolded was actually more like 18×12 inches.

Starting about the time of Jefferson’s administration, the really large paper lost popularity and stationery was mainly sheets about 8×10 inches. Small notepaper size stationery made its appearance about 1840 and was the paper of choice from 1860 until about 1900 when stationery assumed its present size.

Parchment was reserved for documents and religious manuscripts. Paper made from the 17th-18th century up to about 1800-1810 was “laid” paper, and held up to the light will show parallel lines throughout, like a grid or like ribbing, where it had been laid on a rack to dry. The nature of the rack marks varied by time and place, so it is often possible to closely date and locate the paper. Woven paper began replacing laid paper at the end of the 1700s, and by 1810 was the paper of choice.

Imprints & Watermarks

Much paper manufactured between about 1840 and 1890 had little embossed imprints of the manufacturer, or occasionally stationer, usually at the upper left corner. Watermarks unique to each manufacturer were widely used in paper made from the Middle Ages right up to the advent of the cheap, wood pulp-based product, which began in the 1840s and by the 1870s was commonplace. They persisted in high quality papers and still persist to the present day.

A fair number of watermarks actually contain the date of manufacture; others have different but equally valuable information. As an example, some Revolutionary War letters of George Washington have a picture of Britannia as a watermark, establishing the era of their manufacture and providing a wonderful irony. There are books on watermarks, so they can also be used in many cases to date the paper. Not long ago, we dated a manuscript bearing the Washington family coat of arms to the mid-17th century by finding the watermark listed in a reference work.


A letter from Chester A. Arthur using the small note paper of his time

Envelopes didn’t come into general use until the late 1840s. Prior to that, letters were folded up to a size approximating today’s small envelopes and were addressed on the back. The address panel consisted of a space about 4×5 inches. The folds were then sealed with wax, sometimes using a seal with the writer’s coat of arms or initials. A good rule of thumb would be to expect letters prior to 1840 to have folds consistent with this. Since envelopes came into usage, they have been smaller than the letters they contained, so post-1840 letters will also have been folded, but to fit their envelopes. Make sure there is a good explanation for an unfolded letter (for example, since the 1930s, a cover letter enclosing a signed photograph might have been sent in a large mailer and not needed folding).

Starting with a Feather

Introduced around 700 AD, the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument for over a thousand years. It was made from a bird feather, with the strongest quills being those taken from large birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. Goose feathers were most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey. These quills had a very positive property—a natural ink reserve found in their hollow channel. The negatives were that they lasted for only a week before they became worn and it was necessary to replace them, and they had a scratchy and uneven flow.

Example of “nibs” from the metal-tipped dip pens

By the 1840s, quills gave way to the metal tipped nib pen, which lasted much longer and allowed for the tips to be replaced. It did not have an ink reservoir, however, so it required constant dipping.

The fountain pen, with its internal reservoir for ink, came into common use with the invention of the Waterman pen in 1884. These pens were a mainstay for over half a century. Ballpoints were introduced to the market with a great deal of fanfare in 1945 but they were imperfect and very expensive. By 1952, the quality had improved and the price dropped, and over the next half decade they came to dominate the pen market.

The felt tip pen was invented in 1962 but did not come into common use for some years after that. Fine-line and permanent markers were first seen in the 1970s, and superfine-points gained popularity in the 1990s.

Each of these pens lays down a very distinctive, instantly recognizable flow of ink. Beware of any autograph whose ink does not fit into this timeline (like a ballpoint signature of FDR).

Ink Color

Letter from Martin Luther King signed with a ball point pen

Ink color matters also. Before about 1850 inks were generally brownish, and as they were made with iron, show-through was common. Over the years some types have literally rusted (which causes them to eat into the paper to a greater or lesser extent). Blue ink was not used much before about 1850. Some forgers buy old books, remove the blank pages, and write their forgeries on them using brown ink. Thus, the paper is real and the ink looks about right. However, paper loses its “size” over the years, and the strands of cloth in older paper separate a bit, so modern ink applied to old paper will be absorbed slightly and will blur. So watch out for blurriness.

Graphite Autographs

Pencils were present in America by the early 18th century but were not common until the first American wood pencils were manufactured in 1812. Between the early 1820s and 1850s, Boston became a hub of pencil-making, with several small makers opening in the area. One of these was John Thoreau, whose son Henry David was not only a noted author, but inventor of a method of mixing clay with graphite that made a superior lead. This led to the realization that by varying the amount of clay, pencils of differing hardness/softness could be made. The popularity of pencils grew significantly with the Civil War. What does all this mean in practice? I do not recall seeing autographs in pencil from prior to the 1850s and would be very cautious if offered one.

Authenticating autographs is like any other skill—you can learn a lot of the basics quickly, but for the more difficult or challenging projects, nothing works like experience. So, although you can’t become an expert in authenticating autographs just from reading this article, you’ll find that you do have the ability to determine for yourself whether many autographs are authentic based on the paper, pen and inks that were used.

John Hancock vs. the Dow Jones


Autograph May 2009

Some people pay attention to football scores. Some people watch the weather. I watch the Dow Jones Industrial Average. When Lehman Brothers stock fell 45 percent last September, it felt like that moment when the roller coaster has been chugging slowly, upward, then crests a peak and starts what feels like a drop into space. The stock market continued its downward plunge. Yet when I looked at the historical documents hanging on my walls, I couldn’t escape the realization that my Abraham Lincoln-signed commission has outperformed my mutual funds!

Even though I was pleased that my autographs may have held their value, it bothered me to think of them as an investment. I have purchased my collection over the last 18 years out of a passion for history, not for investment reasons. In fact, most seasoned autograph collectors and dealers will tell you, “Buy what you love. Don’t buy for investment purposes.” With the exception of some very high-end, quality content items, this axiom is still good advice.

Still, the fact that Lincoln’s John Hancock outperformed the Dow made me want to understand the relationship between economic downturns and collectible values. While the economy has been unpredictable, the views of veteran autograph dealers and auction houses were fairly consistent.

Steven Raab of The Raab Collection told me, “During the Great Depression, prices went down, though to a lesser degree than other commodities. The desire to collect autographs is a strong one.” He added that “As for recent recessions generally, they have had minimal impact, with some temporary reduction in sales for some dealers and little difference at all for others.” Raab said that 2008 was a very strong year, but that it was still too early to tell how 2009 will fare.

Chris Jaeckel is the proprietor of Walter R. Benjamin Autographs, a firm started by his grandfather over a century ago. The company does not have conclusive documentation of how the autograph market fared during the Great Depression, but Jaeckel did recollect hearing that during that time sales were off. “My grandfather’s brothers helped him through some tough times. How long it lasted or the extent to which business dropped off, I do not know.”

Collectibles have a magnetic draw, even during depressed times—the same reference made earlier by Raab. In an article on the Auction Rebel website about how a recession affects an eBay business, Gary Hendrickson writes, “To a large degree, people make spending and buying decisions based largely on what makes them feel good, and not necessarily on what’s best for their financial well being. Even in good economic times, collectors regularly spend their money on things that make them feel good, not based on sound financial decisions.” The author goes on to recall how buyers rationalize their purchasing decision with statements like “Well, we can always eat hot dogs for two weeks.”

If you are one of those folks who would give up filet mignon for that must-have item, then the theory of buy low, sell dear might apply. In non-recessionary times, the prices of quality, in-demand autographs have steadily increased over time. It is important, however, to realize that this is not an across-the-board statement. Hoarding Brady Bunch signed photos will not bring you the same rewards as high-quality Civil War letters.

Steven Raab has an informative website ( that addresses the “autographs as investments” question. The most recent data (2002) reveals that the best historical autographs experienced extraordinary increases in value as compared to other investments, and great scientific and literary autographs also had a fine track record, according to Raab. More routine letters and documents did not experience as large an increase.

Autograph houses provide an up-to-the-minute pulse on how a market is doing. Bill Panagopulos of Alexander Autographs reported that “Examining the results of our last auction, and those of our colleagues in the trade, we’ve seen that content material—that is letters and documents that have something very significant to say, or that describe crucial events in history, are tending to bring continually higher prices, while very routine material has only maintained previous price levels.” Panagopulos also noted that they have witnessed a decrease in bidders both from collectors and dealers.

“A careful buyer, playing the many auctions out there, has more opportunity to purchase great material with less competition and at lower prices than at any time in recent memory,” he added.

If you are speculating you need knowledge, discipline and patience.

• Your knowledge will allow you to determine both authenticity and salability. If an item wasn’t in demand before the economic downturn—but you can buy it for a really low price—guess what, it still won’t be in demand when the economy turns up.

• Employ discipline to stay focused. If your expertise is in the autographs of royalty, don’t stray into literary figures.

• Patience implies that you might have to hold on to an item until the market accelerates. Make sure your cash liquidity allows you to hold on to the item for the long-term without jeopardizing your mortgage payment in the short-term.

Chris Coover, of Christie’s, is a manuscript veteran of 30 years. He has seen the many ups and downs that the free market has to offer. Coover told me that this recession definitely offers many opportunities for the smart, knowledgeable collector. The recession, rather like a forest fire, clears the underbrush and dry tinder, so that new seedlings, new collections, can germinate.

Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing [the recession] that we see too late the one that is open.” Our current economic situation presents opportunities that one might not have found during more robust times. Take advantage!

Sports Guru: Thrift Store Jackpot


Featured in Autograph March 2009

Bobby Hurley signed photo

Local thrift shops are unsuspecting places to find sports and autograph items. But recently I took the cake! On my way home from work, I usually make a stop at a Goodwill store. I’ve even become good friends with one of the workers since I see him nearly every day. He knows I’m a diehard collector and alerts me to any donations that may have come in.

In December I was chatting with him when another worker came up and said, “We just had a guy drop off a bunch of signed sports stuff.” My friend told him to bring it out from the storeroom so I could take a glance.

Feild of Dreams Certificate of Authenticity

It was my lucky day. Six items were donated and priced at $10 each. They were all signed photos; a few were on plaques. I was thrilled when I saw a Certificate of Authenticity included with a photo of former Duke University basketball star and NBA player Bobby Hurley. The C.O.A. was from Field of Dreams, a sports memorabilia company that operates in many malls. Hurley’s in-person signature compared to the one from Field of Dreams looked very similar. The photo features Hurley in his Sacramento Kings uniform and it’s signed in silver paint pen.

I had the chance to meet Hurley several years ago when he conducted a youth basketball clinic. He was a great teacher and the kids seemed to get a lot out of the experience. I did too when he signed a basketball for me that day. Hurley’s NBA career didn’t last long after he was in a serious car accident during his rookie year, but he will always be remembered as one of the great Duke Blue Devils. In his four years at Duke, he led his team to the Final Four three times and won it twice.

Bo Jackson signed photo with engraved nameplate plaque

One more of the six items was authenticated by the same company: a signed Bo Jackson Kansas City Royals plaque with the engraved nameplate that reads “Bo Knows Baseball.” Jackson has always been a tough autograph since his two-sport days, playing left field for the MLB’s Kansas City Royals and running back for the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders. An all-star in both sports, Bo owned the endorsement market with his Nike “Bo Knows” campaign. Not only could he play baseball and football, but he also ran track in college and tinkered in hoops, playing for a minor league team in Los Angeles.

Jackson does do quite a few shows, but his autograph commands more than a hundred dollars. As a kid during the “Bo Knows” days, I’m thrilled to score an authentic signature for a 10 spot.

Larry Bird signed photo

A couple of other hoops legends were included in my stack of bargains: “Larry Legend” Bird and “The Round Mound of Rebound,” Charles Barkley. These two guys couldn’t be further from each other in personality, but they both have one thing in common—they were phenomenal basketball players.

Both photos came with a C.O.A. from Daniel Enterprises Marketing out of Chino, Calif. I have never heard of the company and couldn’t find out any information on the store. Both signatures appear to be genuine, though collectors have to be careful, especially with Bird. His mail has been ghost signed forever and he’s not a big fan of signing autographs. Bird proved his dominance again and again, winning three NBA titles.

The photo of Bird is from the early ’90s—which is good news. It seems there are many more photos forged today than during Bird’s playing days. Back then a signed photo was worth maybe $30-$50. Today, it’s worth much more, so it’s logical that it’s tougher to secure a legitimate Bird signature unless you’re willing to break open the wallet.

Charles Barkley signed photo

Barkley is the polar opposite of Bird, and continues to entertain today as a broadcaster. His stories could fill a 10-volume series. There was the time Barkley got in a bar fight and decided it would be a good idea to remove the guy from the bar via the plate-glass window, or the time he lost $2.5 million playing blackjack. And have you seen this guy’s golf swing? He’s terrible. However, he’s never one to turn down a good charity golf outing—Barkley routinely tees it up with guys like Michael Jordan, and never fails to leave everyone rolling on the putting green. You would think a guy that plays that much golf would be competitive. He’s not. But it’s sure fun to watch.

On the hardwood, Barkley was a dominating power forward, earning the NBA’s M.V.P. Award in 1993. He also won two Olympic gold medals as part of the first two Dream Teams.

Framed and matted photo of James Worthy

Last but not least for hoops autographs was a framed and matted picture of Los Angeles Lakers legend “Big Game” James Worthy. It’s not the best signature I’ve ever seen, but for $10, I’ll take it. It almost looks like it was signed twice, or maybe the Sharpie wasn’t working well. My fear is that the real autograph started to fade and some joker decided to trace the signature over the top to “restore” it to its original beauty. I guess we’ll never know.

Worthy will always be recognized as one of the true gamers. He played his best ball in the playoffs, and was part of three championship teams with the Lakers. He also won the NCAA championship in 1982 with UNC as a junior. Worthy used to be a great signer through the mail, but those days are over. Today he hosts the Lakers pregame and postgame shows, and is the CEO for his company, Worthy Enterprises.

Andre Reed signed plaque photo

The lone football autograph in the bunch is Buffalo Bills receiver Andre Reed. A 2008 finalist for the Hall of Fame, I think it’s only a matter of time until he will be sporting one of those awful yellow suit coats. Reed has always been a great signer and still answers his fan mail. But I’m guessing that may end when he gets the call from Canton. Reed was a crucial piece of the Bill’s Super Bowl days in the 1990s. They never took home the hardware, but they did make it to four straight.